March 13, 2013
First phase of Hatteras Island Ocean Center set to open this spring
By JORDAN TOMBERLIN
years of planning and preparation, construction has begun on the
ambitious Hatteras Island Ocean Center project in Hatteras village.
according to Eric Kaplan, the driving force behind the Ocean Center,
the first phase of development—which will include an information center
and a series of wetland trails that lead to a soundfront launching
area—will be completed and open to the public sometime this spring.
main feature of this initial phase will be the multi-purpose
information and education center. It will be housed in the former
Beacon Shops building, which the Ocean Center purchased last year,
located just off Highway 12 in the village, and it will serve as both
the headquarters for the non-profit Ocean Center and an interactive,
educational resource for visitors.
Kaplan and a devoted
network of volunteers have been hard at work, remodeling one of the
building’s vacated retail spaces and preparing to outfit it with an
array of exhibits and interactive technologies that will allow visitors
to explore the complexity and diversity of the island’s ecosystem.
we do in this building is going to be tied to ecology, in one way or
another,” Kaplan said. “And because we’re small, we have to be very,
To that end, Kaplan and volunteers Lee Haller,
Jody Haller, and Lee Setkowsky have organized the space into a series
of exhibits—each focusing on a particular aspect of the island
ecosystem—that rely heavily on visual media and interactive
technologies to engage visitors.
When visitors first enter the
space, they will be greeted by a large (as in, life-size) video screen
that will feature the underwater photography of local artist Russell
From there, visitors will move to an exhibit on
marine life and the ecology of shipwrecks, which will be created in
collaboration with the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, and will, of
course, feature everyone’s favorite ocean predator, the shark.
up is a feature on weather and its role in the island’s ecosystem,
followed by an exhibit on shellfish and salt marsh ecology.
From there, visitors will enter what Jody Haller affectionately called “Turtle Land.”
As Kaplan put it, “everyone loves turtles.” And, he added, “Turtles play a really important part in what’s going on here.”
first stop in “Turtle Land” in an interactive machine, on loan from the
North Carolina Aquarium, that simulates x-rays and probes and allows
users to “diagnose” turtle maladies and learn how to care for them.
Basically, it teaches visitors about sea turtle biology and the
environmental conditions that affect turtles by allowing the visitors
to play veterinarian.
The next stop is an exhibit that focuses
exclusively on North Carolina sea turtles, with a particular emphasis
on the issues and opportunities facing Hatteras Island. The exhibit
will include information about the nesting, stranding, rehabilitation,
and release of turtles, as well as information about the relationship
between turtles and fishermen on Hatteras Island.
provides a natural segue into the final exhibit, which will provide
information about fishing on Hatteras Island—and Hatteras village
Like the exhibit on shipwreck ecology, the fishing
exhibit will be the product of collaboration between Ocean Center
volunteers and The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, with special input
from Ernie Foster, captain of the Albatross Fleet, the island’s oldest
charter fishing enterprise, which was started by his father in 1937.
exhibit will focus specifically on the charter and commercial fishing
industries, but Haller and Kaplan said they hope in the future to
include information about beach and pier fishing as well.
they come full circle, just before they reach the main entrance of the
space, visitors will see an interactive whiteboard that will provide
information about what’s happening on the island that day—including
weather and tide updates—as well as an area where visitors can pick up
brochures, cards, and other information from local businesses.
of course, there will be a (very) small gift shop, where visitors will
be able to purchase a few Ocean Center goods should they feel so
After they leave the information and education
center, visitors can feel free to enjoy the other Ocean Center feature
that will be available this spring -- the nature trials that will snake
through wetlands behind the Ocean Center building, leading visitors to
the Pamlico Sound.
Essentially, the trails will be little more than well-beaten footpaths through the marsh.
restricting ourselves to no hardened structures,” Haller said of the
trails. “We want to make as little impact as possible.”
is that the trails will function as a kind of hands-on, outdoor
educational experience—that visitors will be able to immerse themselves
in the wetland ecosystem in a minimally invasive way.
addition to the trails themselves, the Ocean Center is planning to
provide a space for visitors to launch watersports equipment at the
They plan to create some sort of unloading
dock for the equipment, but for now, those details—as well as details
about the parking situation—are still up in the air. Kaplan insisted,
though, that sometime this spring there would be free, public kayak and
stand-up paddleboard access, as well as accessible parking, for anyone
who wanted to explore the Hatteras wetlands.
news for anyone trying to launch a kayak or a paddleboard in Hatteras
village, since there is currently a dearth of public launching areas,
and parking is even harder to come by.
However, despite his
commitment to facilitating responsible wetland excursions, Kaplan was
adamant that providing public access would be as far as the Ocean
Center would go.
In other words, the Ocean Center would not be
offering training courses, equipment rentals, guided tours, or other
“We’re not trying to compete
with [local businesses],” Kaplan said. Our job is to enhance.
We’re all about economic development, not about hurting the economy.”
idea that the Ocean Center will be a boon to the local economy and
bolster local businesses is one that’s very important to Kaplan—and one
to which he’s very committed.
There will be no charge to visit
the Ocean Center and use its facilities. “We hope that [visitors] have
such a good experience that they’ll give us a donation,” Kaplan said.
And local businesses will be able—and are encouraged to—place flyers, brochures, and business cards in the education center.
long-term plan for the Hatteras Island Ocean Center goes beyond the
education center and the soundside trails and water access.
Ocean Center's first move was to purchase property on the oceanside of
Highway 12 in Hatteras village, the site of the former General Mitchell
Motel that was destroyed in Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
facilities on the oceanside, Kaplan hopes, will eventually include a
world-class fishing pier, a pier house with an event venue, a
restaurant for oceanview dining, other food vendors, covered
playground, an arcade, plentiful parking, a public bathhouse, tackle
shop, equipment rental, indoor and outdoor exhibits, classrooms,
research areas, and a wildlife rehabilitation area.
locals and visitors using the area for fishing, swimming, surfing,
kiteboarding, windsurfing, standup paddleboarding, scuba diving, bird
watching, stargazing, wintertime seal and whale watching, dining,
enjoying live music, and just sitting and watching the sunrises and
It will be, he says, “a place for everybody to enjoy the ocean, play, learn, and have fun.”
while Kaplan and the Ocean Center board pursue funding possibilities
for the oceanside phase of the project, they are opening up the
information and ecology center to give the project a presence on the
And the soundside trails and launching area are much less expensive to develop than the oceanside phase.
phase, Kaplan says, is several years down the road at least and will
involve building the pier house first and then the pier. The
thought behind that is that local businesses leasing areas in the pier
house would provide a source of income.
Over the winter, the Ocean Center received what is essentially the National Park Service’s endorsement for the project.
Memorandum of Intent between the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and
the Ocean Center gives the center permission for a portion of the pier
to cross park property on the beach. The Pier House would be on
the private land, purchased by the ocean center.
this, the Park Service will enter into a cooperative management
agreement with Dare County for operation and maintenance of the portion
of the center crossing seashore property.
However, the Park
Service will have no financial liability for the Ocean Center, and thus
far Dare County has made no financial commitments to the project.
Kaplan is pursuing financing through grants from the public and private sector, including foundations, to build the project.
hopes that the Ocean Center will be a draw for visitors—a facility that
will attract more people to Hatteras village. “We want people to
realize that the lower part of Hatteras is a destination in its own
right, not a way to get to Ocracoke.”
Kaplan also believes
that the Ocean Center will complement the island’s existing cultural
and historical attractions—including the lighthouse, the marinas, and
the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum—and that the attractions will
support and bolster one another.
“I think it all works
together, and that’s—I think—an important aspect of what we’re doing.
You have to make this work, not only from a cultural point of view, but
also economically,” Kaplan said. “If there isn’t enough
stuff to do, people won’t go. So, the more things [to do], the better.
They actually reinforce each other.”
(Irene Nolan also contributed to this article.)
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read the Memorandum of Intent between the Hatteras Island Ocean Center and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Click here to read a letter from Dare County manager Bobby Outten to Eric Kaplan about the county’s involvement in the project.
For more information on the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, go to www.Hioceancenter.org.
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